The Indian government must reject proposed amendments to juvenile justice laws that could allow children to be treated as adults in cases of serious crimes, Amnesty International India said today.
“Children can and do sometimes commit crimes as violent as those committed by adults. And the pain and anger of a victim or their family may well be the same regardless of whether a crime was committed by a child or an adult,” said Shashikumar Velath, Deputy Chief Executive, Amnesty International India.
“But children’s culpability, even when they commit ‘adult’ crimes, is different because of their immaturity. Their punishment should acknowledge this difference, reflect children’s special capacity for reform and rehabilitation, and be grounded in an understanding of adolescent psychology.”
On 18 June 2014, India’s Ministry of Women and Child Development stated that the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000, would be repealed and re-enacted. A bill is likely to be introduced in Parliament soon to replace the Act.
Under the bill, in cases where children aged between 16 and 18 are accused of serious crimes including murder, rape and acid attacks, authorities will conduct an assessment of factors including the “premeditated nature” of the offence and “the child’s ability to understand the consequences of the offence”. Based on the assessment, children can be prosecuted in an ordinary criminal court, and punished as adults if convicted. They cannot be sentenced to death or life imprisonment without the possibility of release.
India’s Minister for Women and Child Development has said that the amendments are intended to deter violence against women because “50 per cent of all sexual crimes are committed by 16-year-olds who know the Juvenile Justice Act”. However, according to official data, children were allegedly involved in 5.6 per cent of all registered rape cases in 2013, and in 1.2 per cent of all registered criminal cases.
India’s National Commission for Protection of Child Rights has described the proposed amendments as “retrograde in nature and against the principles of reformative and restorative justice” and said they would “defeat the intent and purpose of the juvenile justice system”. Several child rights organizations have also opposed the changes.
India’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro-Sciences (NIMHANS) told the government in a joint submission with the National Law School of India University, “making the argument of maturity based on the nature of crime does not stand scrutiny. Findings in neuroscience and adolescent psychology confirm that juveniles are more susceptible to negative influences and peer pressure, are less likely to focus on future outcomes, are less risk-averse than adults, have poor impulse control, and evaluate risks and benefits differently all of which pre-dispose them to make poor decisions.” The institute said that offences by children were more likely to happen in “circumstances of neglect, exploitation and abuse, and the child having been socialized in a way where his/her decision making goes awry, rather than in a context of premeditation and criminality.”
The Supreme Court of India, in judgements delivered in July 2013 and March 2014, supported the position that all children accused of crimes must be tried under juvenile justice laws. In the Salil Bali case, the Court stated, “the age of 18 has been fixed on account of the understanding of experts in child psychology and behavioural patterns that till such an age the children in conflict with law could still be redeemed and restored to mainstream society.”
Under international law, anyone under the age of 18 is a child. Any amendment that would lower the age at which juvenile justice rules would be applicable to below 18 years would violate India’s international legal obligations. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child – the expert body which monitors the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), to which India is a state party – has specifically recommended that states not allow 16 or 17-year-old children to be treated as adults.
“The Juvenile Justice Act was introduced in 2000 in part to comply with India’s obligations under the CRC. Any amendment that lowers the age at which juvenile justice rules apply would set India back several years in its treatment of child offenders,” said Shashikumar Velath.
“It is true that the reform and rehabilitation under the current juvenile justice system often exists largely on paper. However the solution is not to change the law, but to ensure it is better enforced. Effective reform of child offenders will serve not only the best interests of children and their families, but also the short and long-term interests of society.”
The Justice Verma Committee, set up by the central government in December 2012 to review laws against sexual violence, recommended that the upper-age limit for juvenile justice rules not be reduced from 18 to 16.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a state party, requires all proceedings against juveniles to take into account their age and the desirability of promoting their rehabilitation.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires states to recognize the right of every child accused of a crime to be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child’s sense of dignity and worth, which reinforces the child’s respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of others and which takes into account the child’s age and the desirability of promoting the child’s reintegration and the child’s assuming a constructive role in society.
Anyone under the age of 18 should be tried in accordance with internationally accepted juvenile justice standards, including:
- The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (the “Beijing Rules”);
- The United Nations Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency (the “Riyadh Guidelines”);
- The United Nations Rules for the Protection of Juveniles deprived of their Liberty (the “Havana Rules”); and
- The Economic and Social Council Guidelines for Action on Children in the Criminal Justice System.
Amnesty International India is part of the Amnesty International global human rights movement. We are independent of any government, political ideology, economic interest or religion, and are funded mainly by contributions from individual supporters. Amnesty International India’s Human Rights Education programme works with schools in India to integrate human rights into schools’ curricula, relationships, environment and governance. Our vision is for every person in India to enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, other international human rights standards and the Constitution of India.